Return to Work anxiety: How leaders cope

Return to work anxiety is not unexpected, given the ongoing uncertainty about the COVID-19 virus, increased outbreaks in some areas of the globe and the financial strain faced by many. 

We’ve talked about how leaders can help their team members transition back to work, but it’s not necessarily any easier on those of us in leadership roles.

As I mentioned in our previous blog, last week I surveyed readers and clients about what kind of leadership challenges they’re facing currently and we got an overwhelming number of responses. 

One takeaway from our survey is that many leaders are feeling caught between what their own leaders want and what their staff want. Many of you shared that you’re not feeling comfortable returning to work right now, but are tasked with bringing your teams (who are anxious and apprehensive!) back into the office and we shared with you what one of our readers told us of their situation.

Logistical planning isn’t a guarantee

Return to work anxiety is exacerbated by the unknowns. We’re putting measures in place to keep people as healthy as we can, but then we see that reopening in some areas has resulted in increased outbreak numbers and a return to lockdown measures.

Psychological strain is perhaps the one constant throughout this pandemic. If it’s not worrying about your health or the health of those you care about, it’s figuring out how to cope with social isolation and managing grief and anxiety. Compounding all of that distress is the unknown.  How long will this last? Will there be another wave? 

It’s important to take care of your own mental health and anxiety as you lead others through this challenging time. Here are some strategies to help leaders cope:

Check how you’re feeling a couple of times a day

Stress and anxiety manifest in each of us in physical ways. When you’re distressed, how do you react? It might be that you feel unease in your gut, your chest goes tight, you breathe rapidly and shallowly, you get knots in your neck or back or you feel the tell-tale pressure in your head of an impending migraine. Stress and anxiety are normal, physical responses to the body’s alarm system — but we need healthy ways to cope with them and noticing when they are occurring is a key first step.

If you take a few minutes morning, noon and night to quickly assess how you’re feeling physically, you can then identify if you’re holding tension and worry in your body. If you can, close your eyes for a moment and mentally walk through your muscles and body from head to toe. Clenching your jaw? Relax your facial muscles. Muscles taut? Stretch and do some deep breathing. Stomach upset? Meditate and calm yourself with some yoga or rock out to some loud tunes to release that nervous energy. When we can counter the physical symptoms, we also help to alleviate the emotional anxiety. 

Focus on what you can control

It’s really hard not to think about the worst-case scenarios as you lead your team after the initial crisis (especially when you’re the one in charge of planning for the worst and hoping for the best!). Many of you probably have team members who share their worst fears, so if you were more optimistic you’ve got some doubts now, too.

When dealing with a crisis, it’s hard not to worry about the worst that could happen. But it doesn’t have to be either the best or the worst, it could be (and likely will be) somewhere in the middle. 

It’s helpful to focus on what we CAN control rather than what we don’t know. First, of course, follow your federal and local public health advisories and stay abreast of their latest evidence-based recommendations. Different stages of reopening call for different guidelines and limitations.

But you can also work on other things in your control. Your company wants people in the office? Perhaps you can control how many at once, or alternate days. Does your boss want people back so you’re able to serve the public? Then maybe frontline staff with plexiglass dividers will fill the need without everyone coming back at once.

And, while we can’t ensure no one will get exposed to this virus, we can wash our hands and remind staff to do this regularly — BIG signs on the back of the bathroom door, emails every once in a while, supply hand sanitizer bottles all over the office — perhaps one for every staff member working — adapt the seats in the break room so that people can gather and talk but still stay 2m apart, and offer masks and face shields for those who have to come in.

And remember: If you don’t know the answer right away, that’s okay. You can reach out to someone with expertise and get advice, then report back to your team members. Staff regularly report in surveys that they have much greater appreciation and admiration for a boss who says, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out” (and then, does) vs. a boss who offers up their best guess or ignores a query.

You can’t control everything, but you can control how you react

It’s possible you’ll encounter folks at work who don’t feel the same anxiety about being back — maybe even your boss(es). Just as you need strategies for teams returning to work, you also need strategies for things that will help you feel safe. 

Some other things that may help you feel more in control could include keeping hand sanitizer in your pocket, bag and desk. You could set up hand sanitizing stations for guests and have disposable masks ready for visitors or clients who don’t have their own. If you encounter someone like a client or a boss who won’t wear a mask, you can be prepared to either excuse yourself or find out ahead of time which room has windows that open or that allows for adequate social distancing (or take the meeting outdoors!).

As a leader, you could implement other policies to help you and your team feel safer in the office. We’ve heard that some workplaces have established “zones” for visitors and “zones” for employees only. Some other workplaces require staff members bring their lunches with them so there isn’t increased exposure from people coming and going from the office to eat out or pick up food during the day. Now is the time for us as leaders to recognize our own concerns, learn what concerns our staff members have and then raise these with senior leaders, sharing them with diplomacy and empathy.

Minimize other outside stresses when possible

It sounds simplistic, but returning to work is already stressful so do what you can to make other aspects of your day a little calmer. 

Make sure you get adequate sleep on work nights (say no to Netflix!) and get up early enough that you’re not rushing out the door. Get into the habit of packing your lunch and having everything ready for the morning before you head to bed so that you don’t waste time searching for clean socks or the work file you absolutely have to bring to work.

Some folks also choose to listen to an uplifting podcast or soothing music during their commute to work rather than listening to the news. 

Find things to look forward to

It’s not easy to have an attitude of gratitude during a pandemic or crisis, but it is possible. Make sure that your schedule includes things that make you feel happy. 

This can be simple — like breakfast with your partner, walking the dog or calling a good friend to chat. It could be a weekly massage or daily workout. What’s important is that it’s something you do that is for YOU and not for anyone else. Maybe it’s as simple as getting up a bit early to savour that first cup of coffee with no one bothering you, or puttering in the garage on Saturday. Self-care is time to recharge and put your well-being first.

Some experts suggest that if you’ve developed new routines during lockdown, like cooking an elaborate meal or doing yoga or playing video games, that you continue this in some way after you return to work because there is comfort in routine.

Reach out if you need support

While we know the terrible effect that this pandemic can have on people’s physical health, the United Nations warned that it also has the potential to create a “major mental health crisis” as people face anxiety after anxiety. 

As leaders, we need to be mindful of our own emotional health and mental well-being. If you are feeling overwhelmed or suffer from chronic insomnia or anxiety, reach out to mental health professionals through your employee assistance program or extended health benefits. The Government of Canada has created a fantastic portal with mental health resources you can use anonymously and I’ve found a number of them to be quite helpful.  Click here to access them. (And if you’re not in Canada, you can still access the resources).  As well, most Canadian provinces have provided some programs too and you can access those here.

If you need help as a leader right now, please reach out to us at Padraig. We’ve created a quick, short and less expensive coaching package for immediate assistance. Instead of our usual starting package of 12 sessions over six months, we’re offering help right now at a special rate for 3 hour long conversations with one of our executive coaches — it’s private, confidential and personalized. We want to help.

Coach’s Questions

How are you feeling about the return to work? What can you address and what is out of your control? What can you do better or differently to protect your own mental health and physical health right now?

 

How to gauge your employee anxiety about returning to work

Returning to work after months at home is unsettling for almost everyone, but how do you evaluate employee anxiety?

It’s important for us, as leaders, to figure out who is okay (yay, I get to leave the kids home with their Dad!), who is a bit apprehensive (are we going to be properly socially distanced and wear masks at all times?) and who is really struggling (I can’t trust the HVAC in here isn’t going to spread contamination and my partner is fighting cancer and immuno-compromised and I still don’t know what we’re going to do with the kids).

Why does it matter? Serious employee anxiety, left unchecked, can result in:

  • Increased sick time
  • Decreased productivity
  • Decreased employee morale
  • Poor performance

Employees who are really worried have every right to reach out to Human Resources, Occupational Health & Safety, an Employee Wellness Program or their union leaders. But, this is one of those times where we, as leaders, can get ahead of the curve by assessing employee anxiety before it escalates and fears ripple through the office. 

Caught in the middle?

I did a survey with people last week about leadership challenges to help me prepare for an upcoming Padraig project and I got a LOT of responses. Shockingly so. (Thank you for taking the time to share your experiences with us!)  

Many readers and clients who answered the survey questions are managers who report to a CEO or director. The common theme is that these leaders feel caught between what their own leaders want and what their staff want.

This is one reply that summarized this situation very well:

I find it very difficult to support the need to return to the office with my team who is very nervous about COVID and being in the workplace with large numbers of people, especially when I do not personally see the value in returning and am extremely anxious myself.

It is difficult to rationalize this to my team when our leaders cannot rationalize this for me. Productivity has increased during the work from home period, as have physical and mental wellness. Returning to the workplace seems like more risk than its worth. How do I support this move?

 

This is a situation where having individual conversations with your team members will give you concrete information to bring to your boss(es) for consideration. They may not realize what kinds of things people are worried about. Having specific examples to share may help you gain ground with your boss and figure out solutions that work for everyone. It may also help you to share your own apprehension a little more candidly as you advocate for your team members. This is an important time to be willing to speak truth to power telling your boss what you’re hearing and what concerns you and sharing it both diplomatically and empathetically.

Make time to have conversations

Don’t panic if you skipped psychology courses during your university years. You’re going to assess how people are feeling by talking with them, one-to-one. Do not cheat and send out emails, ask at a group meeting or issue an online survey.

It’s important to check-in with everyone on your team individually because you can see their facial expressions and observe their body language, which will give you clues to how candidly they’re sharing how they really feel. And, of course, they will hopefully feel more comfortable sharing, if you are talking one-to-one. If you’re assessing how they’re doing, before you move back to the office (good for you!) you can do this by video call.

Talking with your direct reports and team members individually gives you the opportunity to show empathy and vulnerability by acknowledging to them that you, too, had some reservations about calling everyone back into work when there is still so much uncertainty with the COVID-19 pandemic. Employees respond favorably when they feel leaders genuinely care about them, understand them and are interested in what they think.

It will also be important to let them know the conversation is confidential.  Let them know you may share topics without names (if that’s the case) with your boss or your leadership peers, or whomever.  But be clear that their personal concern will remain between the two of you unless they share it with others.

Listen with intent

If you’re a regular reader of this blog then you know that the coaches on my team and I quote management guru Stephen R. Covey when we talk about listening: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

This is a time that you want to ask questions and then listen with the intent to understand. This is not your time to fill in the blanks or suggest to people what you think (so that they mirror your words) and it’s not a time to share all the anxiety and uncertainty in your own life. The classic, “oh, I know how you’re feeling! My life is like this and my home situation is like that and…and…and…” has no place in this conversation.  

Gauge employee anxiety

When you meet with folks, here are some of the types of questions you can ask to help you gauge employee anxiety:

  • How did you find working from home? 
  • How are you feeling about coming back into the office?
  • Depending how they respond (I’m fine, I’m scared, I’m worried, I’m frustrated) you can use that to dive deeper. Such as: I’m glad to hear you’re fine what are you most looking forward to? And, what could we do to make it feel even better? Or, tell me a bit more about that what are you most afraid of? Worried about? Frustrated by?

These open-ended questions will help you to glean information to figure out what is weighing on the minds of your team members, particularly if you allow silence into the conversations instead of filling in the gaps with your own thoughts (which is tempting but wait and hear what people have to say). 

Some answers might be predictable things like worrying about social distancing, flexibility if someone at home gets sick or what happens if there is a second wave. But some of the other answers you get might be surprising.

You might uncover concerns that you would never have guessed otherwise. Maybe Jane in accounting is sleepless worrying that she’s going to have children home learning again in the fall and doesn’t know how to ask if she can keep working remotely. Perhaps Ivan in marketing takes the bus to work and is concerned he could get COVID because he commutes.

Don’t be afraid to take notes, which shows that what your team members are worrying about really does matter to you. (If you do take notes, however, you’ll want to again discuss confidentiality with them.) Keeping notes also ensures you can do some research and follow up with ways to address and allay the specific fears of the people who work for you.

Obviously, if you know who might need to work from home that will help you plan how to phase people for the return to work and develop contingency planning for any future outbreaks (these folks love working from home, these folks would rather work in the office). And if you know what challenges people had working from home, then you’ll also know how to make working from home better than just okay and then you can get everyone prepared and ready for a much smoother transition should it arise this time. 

After you have assessed concerns, go back to individuals to talk about how you can address them. This will help to mitigate employee anxiety, increase loyalty and earn plenty of goodwill. 

Coach’s Questions

What’s your sense of how people on your team feel about returning to work? What can you do differently or better with one-to-one conversations to gauge employee anxiety? How will answers inform your planning?

 

Returning to work team strategies you need

It felt surreal when the world shut down in March, but it feels equally strange to be reopening and returning to work when there’s still so much uncertainty about the pandemic (particularly for our American readers, with escalating numbers in the US). 

Now that outbreak numbers have slowed in Canada (and other countries), Canada’s provinces and territories are reopening — each with its own guidelines and limits set by local public health officials. 

No matter where your business operates, we hope the one constant is that public health guidance will determine social distancing guidelines such as how many people may be in a workplace at any one time and what protocols should be followed for close-contact environments.

Many of you are leaders who a few months ago were figuring out how to successfully lead remote teams and you must now implement plans for returning to work safely. This gives a whole new dimension to the notion of leadership agility, doesn’t it?

As you are building return-to-work strategies, here are some things to consider that will make returning to work less stressful for your team members:

Well-being has to be the top priority


Everything about this pandemic has been stressful. We have leaders figuring out a new way to do business from home or on the frontlines, employees worried about job security, health and safety on the job, children’s education, etc., etc. — and no end in sight to a virus that the world’s top health experts are still trying to understand.

When we talk about well-being, we need to remember that means physical and emotional or psychological health. Many of us have intuitively read the public health guidelines and are planning ways to minimize health risks through schedules (to minimize how many people are on site at certain times), seating plans (to conform to physical distancing requirements) and ways to minimize contact (from visitors or people going to pick up food or ordering food delivery). We’ve got plans for hand sanitizing, mask policies and maybe even carefully added plexiglass barriers.
Pro-tip: The faster you react to public health guidelines and put measures in place to monitor and enforce adherence, the more your team will feel you really value their health and safety.


However, during such uncertain times, we as leaders must also consider how our teams are doing emotionally and psychologically with the return to work. Nothing about this situation is normal, plus there is no definitive end to this crisis, and that means most people are managing grief and anxiety on some level (and that can show up at work as fatigue, anger, resentment, despair, lack of focus or an inability to concentrate). Some folks on your team might feel glad to return to work, but there may well be others who are really worried or just plain overwhelmed and exhausted from months of this. Reassuring staff that their safety (physical and emotional) is a priority is important, and then, more so, following through with measures that show you are walking the talk.

It’s a good time to post reminders that people have extended health benefits to cover counselling and massage or to access the Employee Assistance Program for counselling if they need support. Leaders may also want to consider extra supports, either supplementing extended health during this time or offering online workshops that build awareness of stress and anxiety and healthy ways to cope. It will be important that you talk about benefits and services anytime you speak to teams or groups. You might add some comments about the importance of self-care into your speaking notes.

Keep lines of communication open.
At the beginning of the shutdown, we encouraged leaders to become comfortable with not having all the answers. We shared several tips for how to reassure your team in uncertain times, and all of that still holds true as you begin returning to work. As leaders, we need to be trusted to provide accurate and timely information.

Turn to the public health experts for the most credible information. Ask people about their concerns and, if you can, address them. Demonstrate how you’re taking care of everyone on your team and how seriously you take their worries. If you don’t have answers, reassure folks you’ll get what information you can and get back to them (and then follow through!).

Use a coach approach to help team members who are returning to work.
You likely already mentor (guide by sharing your own experiences), direct (tell team members what they need to do) and teach (show folks how to do things). Coaching is another way that you can lead people and help them communicate, innovate, become self-reliant, take responsibility and build confidence.

Here are some practical ideas for using a coach approach for returning to work and encouraging your direct reports to use a coach approach with their team members. A coach approach relies on drawing conversation out of people to help them figure out their own solutions — ways to get through that resonate for them (even if it doesn’t resonate with you).

Focus on building resilience alongside productivity.
Sure, returning to work means many of us as leaders are looking to get business back on track. But we cannot push productivity alone.

This has been a challenging time for everyone. Some people might bounce back quickly, but others may need some help to recover from difficulties after working from home or as they return to work. Here are practical ways leaders can build resilience alongside productivity — things like breaking negative thought cycles, setting healthy habits, focusing on what we can control, cultivating abundance thinking and more.

It might be very helpful if you do some education around this to ensure that your managers are able to support their direct reports in these ways. It’s crucial that your leadership team is modelling the behaviours and supporting employees in the ways you want to establish for building resilience now as folks are returning to work and moving forward.

Continue to be flexible.
We’ve seen that working from home can work. In the weeks and months ahead, many of your team members may face their own health challenges or need to care for sick loved ones. Some might need ongoing flexibility right now.

We’ve seen some major employers completely embrace work-from-home flexibility. It’s possible that a hybrid of work-from-home and return-to-work may be practical. This way, you can keep business going while also supporting older workers, those with compromised immune systems, those caring for either children or aging parents and those who just aren’t feeling comfortable yet. Letting your teams know that you are open to talking about ways to continue to support them now and later should the virus outbreaks start to escalate again could be very reassuring at this time.

Coach’s Questions

What ways have you been supporting your team through this crisis? What is challenging for your team, and individual team members, right now? What can you do differently or better to support folks who are returning to work? 

 

5 essential reasons for taking time off this summer

Hands up if you’ve felt wistful seeing the calendar reminder for a big holiday that you’ve had to cancel thanks to the global pandemic or if you’re trying to reconcile yourself to a staycation — if you’re even still thinking of taking time off.

The way 2020 has unfolded still feels surreal at times. 

My partner and I had to cut an international trip short and thankfully made the last flight home to Canada back when this all started. Tricia, our wonderful Padraig administrator, just shared with all of us on Zoom that she’s missing the big trip she had planned for a milestone birthday in July (Happy birthday!). Just about everyone I know has given up on a summer getaway. 

Naturally, we’re not alone. As they say, misery loves company and the Internet has not disappointed with hilarious memes and observations about how the Coronavirus has changed travel:

 

 taking time off

And 2020-style weekend travel ideas:

And the new pandemic trip planning:

Some borders are slowly reopening, but outbreaks are being reported all the time. We know that stay-at-home orders have worked and that health experts say that IF there is a viable vaccine it won’t be any time soon. 

Some people don’t want to take time off work right now. This might be because:

  • After working remotely, they feel unseen and thus they should prove their worth
  • If they work on the frontlines or in essential service roles, they might feel obligated to keep working (all hands on deck!)
  • They’re worried about job stability and want to bank vacation time in case they end up out of work
  • Parents who work remotely and have small children may want to ease their double-duty by taking turns taking vacation so one parent is free to entertain the kiddos
  • It feels better to be busy and useful than doing “nothing” at home when a “real vacation” isn’t possible right now

Taking time off this summer

The global pandemic may have changed holiday plans and travel, but here are the reasons we need to make taking time off this summer a priority:

It’s not a waste to take vacation days and stay home. Taking time off does not mean you have to go away somewhere (although that is always a nice way to recharge!). What is important is that you have a mental break from work demands and time to enjoy a little rest and recreation — especially leaders and essential workers trying to avoid burnout. A vacation is not about the destination, it’s about how you spend your time. Miss the excitement of planning a holiday? Find the joy in planning things to do at home that you don’t normally get to do (video game marathon, bike rides, renovating a room or gardening might be on your list).

Do something to change your perspective. Do you remember the scene in the 1989 film Dead Poets Society where the teacher (played by Robin Williams) stands on his desk to inspire his students? He says, “I stand upon my desk to remind myself that we must constantly look at things in a different way.” For a vacation at home during a pandemic, this can be as simple as finding a new route to walk or neighbourhood to explore, packing a picnic, or camping in your backyard and looking at the stars. You’ll return to work (at your dining room table or otherwise!) feeling more creative and ready to focus. 

Allow yourself the luxury of not being busy because it’s good for your health. We’re months into a pandemic and we don’t know what will happen next. Now, more than ever, we need to take care of ourselves. I’ve heard people say that after months stuck at home they don’t “deserve” to take time away from work, but we need to redefine the way we think of being productive right now — and accept that we need a break. As leaders, if we prioritize our own mental health and physical wellbeing, then our team members are more likely to follow suit. Stress and fatigue compromise our immune systems, so consider holidays at home to be preventative medicine. (Pro tip: As leaders, it’s wise to encourage our team members to take time off so they are at their most productive, but also so there isn’t a huge amount of banked vacation time at the end of the year to either roll over or pay out.)

Here are two important strategies to help with your staycation time: 

Make the most of the time you can take. If you aren’t able to take a week or two weeks off because of your work situation, book a few long weekends. It’s amazing the difference one extra day off can make for mental health and focus. Do something that you always put off — cooking something complicated, indulging in some favourite films, making some art or building a model car. 

Protect your time off. If you stay in touch with work on your time off, it’s not a real break. Make sure that you know how to really unplug from work when you’re on vacation. Consider it necessary for your well-being to take a real break from work after months of quarantine. Insist that you will be out of touch and live up to that. When your staff are ready to take time, insist they, too, unplug completely.

Coach’s Questions

Has your perspective on taking time off this summer changed? What could you do to be intentional about your summer holiday this year? What can you do that might encourage your team to take time off?

Surprising lessons we’ve learned about working remotely

Some day, we’ll be telling future generations how 2020 was the year when working from home was necessary to adapt and keep business going during the global pandemic. 

Imagine our “back in my day” stories about how previous to COVID, it was unthinkable that folks in some careers or industries could or would be working from home because that was reserved for creatives, tech types and freelancers.

After all, in just a few short months, we’ve learned some surprising lessons about working remotely and being forced into this reality has debunked several remote work myths. Most notably, that it can work! 

So much so that even utility company staff and federal government workers are working from home — and major companies including financial services such as JPMorgan and Capital One have embraced remote work for the long term. Notably employees of tech giants Twitter and Square have been told they can work from home “forever.”

Canadian-based Shopify, Canada’s biggest company, is a global business leader with over a million businesses in nearly 200 countries. On May 21st, CEO Tobi Lutke tweeted:

Some of our clients are more anxious than others at the prospect of working from home indefinitely or for the long-term. It’s not always easy to juggle that work from home life depending on your own personal circumstances.

As an employee, you need to think about what you need.  As a manager, you need to support your employees.

In our last blog, we talked about some ideas for how leaders can successfully manage remote teams. Today we share some of the practical support people need for a good work-from-home experience.  

Claim Your Costs

Much of the much-needed support we list below requires an investment. If your company wants you to work from home, ask them about investing in the space for you. Many organizations have allowed employees to take equipment (chair, laptop, etc) from the office and others are now paying to purchase needed equipment (anywhere from $500 – $1000 each). 

If you live in Canada, talk to your HR department about a T2200 form. If you work from home more than 50% of the year you may qualify to claim some of your expenses (that you weren’t reimbursed for) as deductions on your taxes — including rent or mortgage costs, utility costs and office supplies and expenses. Have your employer complete the T2200 form.

Things to consider to keep work-from-home separate from living-at-home:

A dedicated workspace: This is especially important if you need to be able to signal to family that you are working and not to be disturbed! Don’t have a separate room with a door you can shut to use as an office? I heard that some innovative parents use a carpet and a sign as a reminder that, “When I’m on this area rug, I’m working.” Bonus: When they jump off it at the end of the day, it’s the quickest commute ever.

Psychologically, setting up dedicated space for work means that when you walk away from that area, you’re able to “leave work” at the end of the day. As one of my followers on LinkedIn noted this week, for parents of young children, “working from home can feel more like living at work!” A dedicated workspace can go a long way to changing that.

It’s also important to have a place to put things away when you’re not working — a way of “closing the office door” even if you don’t have a door or an office. Maybe a trunk or dedicated cupboard?

Comfortable seating: When working remotely was temporary, many folks made do with the dining room table or a corner of the bedroom. If this is continuing, for health and safety reasons people need to have an ergonomic chair and table or desk so that working on a laptop or desktop computer to telecommute doesn’t lead to body aches.

The new must-haves for video conferencing: Invest in earphones or a headset with a built-in microphone. It improves audio when you’re listening (great bonus if your household includes noisy family members) and when you’re speaking it’s more directional sound. Similarly, if you or some of your team members don’t already have a webcam that’s either built-in or plugged in, that should be a priority.

Connectivity: Is everyone who needs to be set up on the software you used in the office? Additionally, an excellent, high-speed internet connection makes working remotely much more pleasant for everyone. Some people have kept their home internet bill low by opting to have more modest internet plans. It’s time to improve bandwidth and speed! (Apply the savings of not commuting to get better internet!).
 

Ability to power up: Sometimes the small things count a lot. Like not having to search high and low for a cell phone charger and block (we hear this is a common issue in households!) and laptop charging cords. Get one and a spare, label them if thievery/borrowing is an issue and set them ready for use with a power bar in your work area.

Security: Depending on your role at work, you (or your team members) may require a locked area for documents related to work. Get ahead of security/confidentiality breaches and determine who needs a locking credenza or filing cabinet — or set up a policy and procedure for how folks are to store work-related documents when they’re working from home.

Office basics: Consider what essential office supplies you and everyone on your team require. Perhaps send your team members a care package, give them a budget and a list or let them know which items are now reimbursable as expenses. Does anyone need to print documents? You may also want to consider printers and ink cartridges or how you will reimburse printed copies. Google recently gave remote staff $1,000 each to purchase what they need while a Canadian financial institution gave staff $500 towards setting up to work from home.

Replacement boardroom or break rooms: Okay, not actually a boardroom. But ideally, where is an out of home space you can go with your laptop to work in fresh surroundings when needed? Here are some of our other strategies for working from home to help you stay focused and on track while also taking care of your mental health.

Coach’s Questions: 

If Work From Home continues, what can you do differently or better to make your own experience and that of your team better going forward?

 

We invite you to attend our virtual live training on how to work better as a team based on the best-selling book, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. The program includes a webinar with the book’s author, Patrick Lencioni, and a live workshop (online, virtual so you can attend from anywhere) with our CEO.
To access the offer, click here.

 

How to successfully lead your remote teams

Back in March, many of our clients were busy transitioning from the normal office routine to remote teams collaborating virtually thanks to COVID-19. 

Some of us have long had some folks working on remote teams so it was less disruptive and others were working on the frontlines and so never did shift to Work From Home. 

The one constant we’ve all faced has been that managing grief and anxiety in these difficult times has been a challenge. The uncertainty of all of this has been the other constant. 

Now, leaders and staff alike are wondering: What if this is our new normal? What if some or all of my team members are going to continue working from home indefinitely? We’ve seen a number of high-profile tech companies announce this IS the new normal for them.

Here are some ideas to help you continue to successfully lead your remote teams:

Offer Clarity on Expectations

In the “old world” we often set rules (sometimes unspoken rules) about the hours of work that team members were expected to contribute. Things like, you have to be at work by this time and stay until this time from Monday to Friday. If you weren’t on leave or grabbing lunch, you were to be sitting at your desk or risk being judged for slacking off. This has never been a good measure of success and outcomes, but now, the world has changed and it’s even worse.

As leaders, we’re weighing what we need to accomplish with everyone’s health and safety:

  • We can’t all be at the office at the same time now, can we? 
  • Even if we can gather together, do we all need to put in the same time to accomplish our goals? 
  • If we’re going to expect people to “stay late” when they have a project to finish, why don’t we expect them to leave early when things are slower?

When you talk with your remote team, be clear about what you expect from them. Do you want them to deliver the product or work the hours? What output per day? Per week? What about breaks and availability for meetings? The challenge now, more than ever, is to define deliverables, not hours.

Figure Out Your New Metrics

What gets measured? What does success look like? 

Now is the time to review what you normally assess in evaluations and performance reviews. Are the competencies, skills and values you’ve sought in the past, still the ones you need now? Are there any new ones?

How Will Teamwork and Connection Work?

What are your expectations around teamwork for remote team members? How will you foster a sense of team and build camaraderie when some or all of your team members are working from home? My greatest fear if Work From Home becomes the new norm is the damage to our work culture and team norms it may cause.  BUT, consciously thinking about what you want your culture and norms to be, and putting in place activities to build that, will help tremendously.

One idea I’ve heard is that everyone on a team logs onto Zoom first thing in the morning and leaves it on in the background with their microphone off. Then they turn the microphone on when they need to ask a question of the group, or to check in over coffee break, etc. This is a way they stay in touch each day, and feel like you’re still part of the team, above and beyond chat programs and email. 

Another is to start planning team workshops, team learning, team gatherings more often than when everyone worked together in the office. They can be virtual or face-to-face (depending on where things are with social distancing rules). Bringing the team together, particularly to spend the day on teamwork, team dynamics and openly discussing how to be a team, works wonders.

As we discussed in an earlier blog, celebrating wins with your remote team is also very important.

How will you ensure out of sight does NOT mean out of mind?

Explain Reporting Relationships

Communication is key in any office, but when you’re not running into people in the hall or scheduling regular face-to-face meetings, what will fill that void? Again, it’s best if this is very well defined so that your direct reports understand your expectations. 

  • How are they to keep you up to date? Do you like texts? Do you prefer email? Phone? Zoom? Be explicit about whether you want them to make appointments or they can just reach out.  Be clear, too, if there’s a difference in regular updates vs urgent communications.
  • How will you communicate with them? (Pro-tip: Check in with each team member to see what method would be best, for them). 
  • What should they raise, and when? When you’re unavailable, who do they turn to?

Be Available

Proactively and regularly check in with everyone on your team to ask them what’s working — and what isn’t. Managing virtual teams is slightly different from managing people who are all in a building with you. 

What do they need from you? “How can I help?” is an important question leaders should always have in their repertoire but especially for folks who are struggling with working remotely.

Coach’s Questions:

What have you found the most challenging with leading virtual teams? What will you do differently if this might be the new normal? 

Discover the reality of remote work myths

If there’s one good thing about 2020 and the worldwide pandemic, it’s that it has opened up some possibilities that might have seemed impossible before. In some cases that has led to greatness.  In other cases, it has led to challenges.

As a result of COVID-19 and stay-at-home orders, more employers than ever before transitioned to staff working remotely from home (including businesses that had previously refused to even consider permitting any remote work!). 

Companies are finding out that there are undeniable benefits with remote work (not the least of which is keeping business going during a pandemic). So much so that we’re now hearing that federal government workers and employees of a variety of private businesses are going to continue to have remote workers in some capacity.

So what does that look like? And what might it mean for you? Let’s look at some common myths to see what’s true and what’s false:

Myth: Remote workers will be tempted to be lazy, avoid work and not get as much done. 

Reality: Overwhelmingly, employers are finding productivity is not an issue. What’s important is how roles and responsibilities are communicated and having the right technology in place to keep workflow going.

CBC News reported that two-thirds of employees with Ontario’s Enbridge Gas transitioned to working from home and the vice president of customer care said they don’t even see a need for closely monitoring employees because, “Productivity is good.” In early May, social media giant Twitter was the first US tech company to announce that employees who were working remotely because of COVID could do so indefinitely if they chose. When I talk to my clients or the coaches on my team talk to their clients, we’re hearing that most leaders are happy with productivity. Many are sold on the value of remote work and even moving from leasing office space for everyone to instead leasing meeting rooms so remote workers can get together when necessary. But, what we’re also hearing is that many employees are overworking. 

Productivity is high because people aren’t shutting off. They work in the evenings and on the weekend, “because it’s there.” That may seem like a big win for the company and a challenge for the employee (which should mean it’s a challenge for their boss, too). In fact, it’s a threat to both the employee and the company. Burning the candle at both ends while working from home is a short-term gain. When employees keep it up, they’ll burn out and while that will be devastating for them, it also means the company loses knowledgeable, capable, experienced staff.

Myth: I can’t delegate to remote workers.

Reality: In our post with leadership tips for managing virtual teams, we overviewed the many benefits of telecommuting (based on research prior to this worldwide pandemic) and highlighted strategies to effectively manage remote teams. Among these, you’ll see our ideas for using project management software, collaboration tools and shared calendars. What you need to communicate doesn’t have to change, just how you let people know what you need from them. 

Ask yourself if your hesitation to delegate is because the employee is remote, or because you are uncertain of their ability or because you tend to think it will be easier/faster/better if you do it yourself. If it’s the latter, it’s time to have a talk with yourself (and hey, during a pandemic, working from home, talking to yourself is positively acceptable). If you’re struggling with delegation, take a look at this post from 2018.

Myth: Productivity = time at my computer.

Reality: For most team members, it’s the quality of the work and not the quantity that matters. And yet, how often before the pandemic did people measure a person’s commitment by the time they showed up and the time they went home? It wasn’t a very good measure then, and it’s even worse with Work from Home. In fact, as we said above, studies have shown that people who work remotely tend to devote MORE time to their work, not less.

When people have clear goals and deadlines for the tasks to meet those goals, productivity switches from X amount of time in front of a screen to successfully completing assigned work. As leaders, we need to shift our thinking from work hours to deliverables. 

Myth: We can’t really engage when most or all of us are working remotely. 

Reality: While I do think we lose the synchronicity and camaraderie of having folks in the same workspace (not just meetings but, more so, chatting face to face and bumping into each other in the hallway or break room), companies across various industries have been working hard to connect teams remotely. We’ve even seen doctors using tele-appointments effectively, and school for the youngest children to university students being taught online. One team we work with logs on together on Zoom, even though they are each working independently (as they would in a cubicle at the office) but they can pop in and ask questions, chat with colleagues on the team whenever they need to (as they would in a cubicle at the office).

As leaders, we can be creative about connecting with remote teams and celebrating their wins.

Myth: Communication suffers with remote work. 

Reality: It can, but it doesn’t have to. When leaders communicate well and foster a culture that encourages people to communicate, they can continue to do so whether some or all of the team is working remotely. 

It’s important to question yourself on how you’re showing up to others and how you’re communicating. Are you adapting your style to the person you’re trying to communicate with, or using one size fits all? Are you consciously seeking to communicate with staff more often given you won’t be running into them in the hall? 

You may not have noticed that some staff never interrupt you but chat you up in the corridor. In some cases, they were watching for you to walk by so they could ask you a question without interrupting your day and they can’t do that now. Are you making opportunities for them to ask you those questions?

Myth: People who like working remotely don’t like working with others. 

Reality: Many different personalities enjoy the flexibility to be able to work from home. There are many very extroverted people who have worked remotely for years (like the writer on our Padraig team!). The pandemic has shown us clearly introverts and extroverts have challenges managing through social isolation

Myth: Remote workers will have way better work-life balance.

Reality: While many folks used to think working from home means you’ll have extra time for all kinds of things, the reality is that most people are working really hard to complete their work. Particularly given their spouse or partner, children, possibly elderly parents are also now home all day, too. Managing the expectations of other family members is a challenge. 

With the onset of the pandemic it has also become more apparent that multi-tasking doesn’t work as well as we’d all like to think it does. I’m hearing from clients that they’re realizing they can’t focus on a Zoom call while simultaneously checking emails, let alone juggling household tasks or childcare. Working parents have had to figure out creative ways to share childcare duties during the pandemic or shifting their schedules to work when the children are napping or sleeping.

Working well remotely requires dedicated space, and establishing the same boundaries with loved ones as you would with coworkers in the office who interrupt: “I’m sorry, I’m in the middle of this work. I’ll have to get back to you later.” Instead of trying to find balance, it can be helpful to try to find work-life synergy — whether you work remotely or in the office. 

Coach’s Questions

Which myths did you believe were true of remote work before the pandemic? How have your views changed? What can you do this week to improve remote work for yourself and your team? What changes will you implement if this interruption in your normal becomes your new normal?

Zoom fatigue: Is it time to log off?

I love that technology allows me to work with my team (we span four time zones!) and to work remotely with clients. It’s been a little easier for us at Padraig to adapt to virtual meetings during the global pandemic than for some of our clients who are new to working remotely. 

But even so, I catch myself really missing working with folks in real life and feeling utterly exhausted after a day of video calls. I know it’s a problem for leaders we coach and their teams, too. 

It was a relief to learn that I’m not alone and this feeling has a name: You’ve probably heard the phrase Zoom fatigue in the news and on social media. It’s a big issue for everyone from elementary school students to senior executives. In fact, I’ve read that Google searches for the phrase have increased exponentially in the last few weeks.

Why is Zoom fatigue a thing?

(And it’s not just Zoomit can be Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, Skype or whatever platform or essential tools for facilitating remote meetings that you choose!)

Experts give a few reasons why being on video calls wears us down more than meeting in person:

  • There is pressure to be focused and engaged every minute: If you’re in a meeting with someone face to face or around a boardroom table with a group of folks, you’re not staring at each other and smiling the entire time. Some of us doodle, look out the window, whisper to the person next to us or take a sip of water. But when we’re on a video call, there’s a pressure to focus and be constantly attentive, like some sort of hyper performer. In a meeting it’s easy to say, “Sorry Jan, I was reflecting on something and I missed that last pointcan you repeat that for me?” or to let others jump in on something when they can see you’re not going to jump in on the topic but online there are all sorts of awkward pauses while we wait to see if someone else is speaking, or we all talk over each other as we jump in, unsure whether anyone else wants to contribute. Poor audio quality or technical glitches can exacerbate the strain of listening as we struggle to follow what’s being said.
  • Home interruptions can be stressful: At the same time we feel compelled to hyper focus in a video call, real life can make being online stressful. What if a child or partner interrupts? The pets flip out? Someone comes to the door? Trying to appear professional and available while also worrying about factors you can’t control is exhausting (and not something we have to worry about when working at the office!). This level of multi-tasking is uncharted territory for most folks, and it’s not only exhausting, it isn’t working.
  • The Hollywood Squares effect: Video calls have created an entirely new level of self-consciousness as we try to compensate for the missing non-verbal cues we’re used to in person. It’s not natural to stare at someone without ever averting your gaze, but on a video call we’re staring at not only other people intently but seeing our own face in a window. A colleague and friend of mine recently said, “Well one thing I’ve learned with being on-screen all the time, I gotta work on my poker face!” It’s extraordinarily difficult not to be hyper aware of how we look and feeling like we can’t look away without seeming disinterested. It feels like everyone is (or could be) scrutinizing everyone else’s expressionand no one wants to appear zoned out for all to see. It feels like staring at the screen is proof of paying attention (and THAT is exhausting!).

So if you’re feeling Zoom fatigue, it’s legit. Psychologists confirm that video calls are more tiring for our brains than talking to people in person. In addition to being emotionally draining, video calls strain our eyes and the variable backgrounds of multiple users on-screen distract our brains even further. For leaders, there’s the added responsibility of keeping your team engaged during remote meetings.

How can we alleviate feelings of Zoom fatigue for ourselves and our teams?

There are several things we can do to help lessen the effects of Zoom fatigue. These include:

  • Encouraging folks to turn off their video and just listen if someone is presenting information. This way, the presenter can focus on what information needs to be shared (not worrying about all those eyes watching!) and the users can relax while they watch and listen to the presenter without feeling like they’re performing for the camera.
  • Minimize the distractions that you can control. It’s tempting to multi-task, but don’t. Paying attention on a video call is enough! Mute your phone, close the tabs to other websites you might be tempted to peruse or even close the other programs altogether so you can ignore distractions (including your email!) till after you’re done.
    (Pro tip: If you have to be on video but don’t want to be constantly distracted trying to ensure you “look good” online hide yourself so you’re not stressing about how you look to others on the call. On Zoom, you do this by right-clicking on your video. This displays a menu and you choose Hide Myself.)
  • Be aware of ambient noise: If you’re on a video call, mute the microphones unless you’re speaking. Hearing people click pens, rustle paper, hit computer keys or tap the table can be extremely distracting for most folks because they’re amplified.
    (Pro tips: During a Zoom call you can press and hold the spacebar to briefly unmute to make a quick comment. Letting go of the spacebar re-mutes your microphone. Using a headphone with a mic can reduce background noise for other listeners – and so can speaking in an area with upholstered furniture and a nice bookcase to absorb sound behind you.)
  • Use text chat to raise questions. When there’s a group discussion, it can quickly get confusing when everyone is talking. Ask people to raise questions via text and have one person serve as the meeting moderator to facilitate who speaks.
  • If closed captions are available, use them. When watching a video, being able to read what people are saying improves comprehension. Bonus: It’s also inclusive if you have anyone who is hard of hearing on your team and helpful to anyone who has a noisy environment.
  • Acknowledge the elephant in the room. And by elephant, I mean children. Or other family members. When folks are working from home and sharing space, there will be interruptions. Setting the tone that it’s okay if someone has to step away to deal with a child or you understand if little ones tiptoe into frame will take A LOT of stress off of team members in this situation (and, in turn, a lot of stress off their family members, too!).
  • Take little breaks. Rest your eyes by looking away from the screen every so often. You can have a pen and paper so it appears you’re taking notes (that’s still paying attention!). After a call, get up and walk away from your computer for five or 10 minutes so you’re not still staring at a screen. Take the opportunity to read, stretch, go for a quick walk or have a snack. Step outdoors, if you can, for a moment. 
  • Decide what can be done by email or on the phone. Not everything with a team member or client has to be a video call! It’s highly likely that an email or phone call is sufficient for a simple conversation. If you feel like it would be a welcome break from video conferencing, the other person probably feels the same. Certain types of calls might also feel less stressful by phone for everyone involved. I have a couple of coaching clients who used to meet with me in-person, but when I asked if they wanted to meet by video they quickly said, “Could we meet by phone? I’d welcome the chance to just close my eyes and talk with you without being ‘on’ for our session.”
  • Make virtual social get-togethers optional. If your team members are struggling to cope with Zoom fatigue, a mandatory team building event online is going to be counterproductive. Allow people to bow out if it’s too much, or make it clear they can mute their mics or turn off video and you’re not going to ask them about it.

Coach’s Questions: 

What signs of Zoom Fatigue (or Microsoft Teams Fatigue, GoToMeeting Fatigue) are you seeing in your staff, your colleagues, yourself? What new ideas or approaches could you do differently to model for others and to alleviate some of the pressures associated with video calls? What will you change with your next video call?

How leaders find support through a crisis and avoid burnout

Leading through the COVID-19 crisis has pushed many of us in ways we could never have anticipated when we first welcomed 2020. 

From keeping frontline workers safe or coping with staffing challenges to transitioning to working remotely, leaders have had a lot to figure out during this global crisis all while keeping revenue on track, protecting citizens, sourcing supplies or even figuring out how to stay in business.

In preventing leadership burnout, we talked about how to differentiate characteristics of stress versus burnout and ways leaders can guard against burnout under more typical business circumstances.

A small table we shared in that last blog about leadership burnout might be helpful to you. It was from a recent article where James Sower outlined how to differentiate stress from burnout and it resonated for me:

 

Stress

  • Feel emotions more strongly
  • Feel less energy
  • Leads to being anxious or worried about a situation
  • Manifests as physical consequences, such as feeling tired or nauseated or having headaches
Burnout

  • Feel emotionless or disinterested
  • Feel less motivated, optimistic, or hopeful
  • Leads to feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or depression
  • Manifests as emotional consequences, such as experiencing anger, mood swings, or depression

 

But how do you slow down the burnout rate when you’re thrown into leading during a crisis especially one that doesn’t necessarily have an end in sight? 

The characteristics of burnout are the same during a crisis as they are under more typical conditions. During a crisis, however, everything is intensified and many leaders are at risk of overworking as they try to support their team members and take care of the company. 

We’re always at risk of missing the warning signs of burnout but it’s worse when everyone is in crisis and that feels like the new norm.

Here are five ways to avoid burnout during a crisis:

Find support for yourself: As the old saying goes, you can’t pour from an empty cup. You need to make sure that you have someone to turn to when things are hard. Reach out to someone you trust. You can vent to a good friend or family member, find help with emotional overload from a mental health professional or get help navigating issues and leadership challenges from a certified leadership coach. 

In a time of crisis, when everyone is facing challenges, you might want to pick more than one person and invite them to talk to you, too, or help them find someone to talk to. If you share with each other, just monitor to be sure it doesn’t become a “pity party” or just complaining and venting without thinking “and, so now what?” You may find it works well to talk to several people about forming a group to share concerns and frustrations and to help each other see solutions.

Don’t try to be a hero: Many leaders feel they need to keep going and save the day when there is a crisis, but you’re not going to be as effective if you’re worn out. Adequate sleep, regular exercise and healthy food all contribute to our overall health and ability to manage stress. Now, perhaps more than ever, self-care is essential if you want to be able to lead everyone for the long haul. (Bonus: Your team members will be more likely to take care of themselves if they see you make building resilience alongside productivity a priority.) 

Figure out what’s important – and what’s not: When things are dire, you need to be ruthless about priorities. Figure out what is essential, what you can defer and what you just can’t do right now. Make the best decisions you can given the information that you have right now (speed is more important than perfection when things are changing quickly). As leaders, we need to be able to adapt, adjust and figure out new strategies. That means letting go of, “Shoulda, woulda, coulda.” Make the decisionif it’s wrong, or something changes, consider your overall priority, make another decision, and keep going. The keys here are:

  1. Think of your goals or priorities as “hypotheses”if things change, the goal might have to change. That doesn’t mean you were wrong; it means things changed. 
  2. Don’t beat yourself up when it looks like something was wrong. Make a new decision given what you know now, and keep going.

Keep communicating: Let your team know what’s happening, including what you’re not going to do and what you don’t know yet. That last part might be scary when you think the boss needs to know the answer in order to be respectedbut the opposite is proving to be trueacknowledging what you don’t know and pledging to share the answer when you know it builds enormous trust and respect with your team. 

Also, now is the time to use a coach approach with your team, which will help keep information flowing from the frontline to senior staff. This is essential when you need to stay informed about the ground-level situation with your clients, stakeholders and supply chains.

People are as important as goals: During a crisis, it can be all too easy for leaders to put their whole focus on the business goals. While those are important, so is your teamand during this time of uncertainty, the people who will help you reach your goals need your support and empathy more than ever. In addition to checking in with your team, this is also a time to be flexible so your team can keep working without stressing about taking care of themselves and their families. 

I realize that might be part of the pressure that’s on you – balancing the demands from your boss and the need to be flexible and support the people reporting to you. If that’s the case, try thinking about the end goal your boss has and how flexibility with your staff might help you achieve it for the boss.  Or, use the tips above to work with a coach or trusted friends and mentors to explore new approaches, interesting ideas and other ways to solve the challenge while satisfying multiple needs.

Coach’s Questions:

How have your stresses changed during the pandemic crisis? What characteristics of burnout can you see starting to happen for you? What can you do to find support and avoid burnout? What would help your team?

 

The key benefits to solving problems, now

Do you feel like you’re constantly solving problems? 

For some folks, it’s as though they get one thing sorted and another pops up – or maybe the same kind of problem recurs. 

Bill Murray fans might call it a Groundhog Day situation, which sounds cuter than it feels, but the more technical term is being in a reactive cycle.

When someone is in a reactive cycle, it can feel like falling into the same hole week after week, month after month and year after year. 

Typically people: 

  • Push through and deal with the problem when it erupts again, and/or
  • Vow that next time will be different (and then they take care of the problem again and again).

It’s exhausting and unproductive if you’re just responding to crisis after crisis. 

Prevent problems before they happen

Our Admin officer, Tricia Hiebert, recommended I check out Dan Heath’s book, Upstream, in which he explores how to prevent problems before they happen. 

In the book, Dan explains: “We stay downstream, handling one problem after another, but we never make our way upstream to fix the systems that caused the problems. Cops chase robbers, doctors treat patients with chronic illnesses, and call-center reps address customer complaints… So why do our efforts skew so heavily toward reaction rather than prevention?”

In a recent podcast, Dan shared the parable that inspired the name of the book. It’s a public health parable that is commonly attributed to Irving Zola and it goes like this:

You and a friend are having a picnic beside a river, so you drape out your picnic blanket and just as you’re about to sit down and eat, you hear a cry from the river behind you. There’s a child struggling in the river apparently drowning, so you and your friend instinctively jump in, you fish out the kid, you bring him to shore. 

Then just as your adrenaline is starting to subside a little bit you hear another cry. There is another child in the river, so you jump back in the river, you grab the child and come back to shore. No sooner have you fished this child out then there are two more kids behind you struggling and drowning. So you begin this revolving door of rescue and it’s starting to get exhausting but the flow never ends. 

Then you notice your friend swimming to shore and stepping out as if to leave you alone. You say, “Hey, where are you going? I can’t do this alone! These kids need our help.” Your friend says, “I’m going upstream to tackle the guy who’s throwing all these kids in the river.”

It’s a quirky story to explain how many people run their lives and their business: They’re responding to crisis after crisis, but never fully realize that there is a solution to this exhausting cycle of stress and feeling overwhelmed. (Of course figuring out the root cause isn’t always as simple as walking upstream! And sometimes you need that two-pronged approach of saving the drowning children AND figuring out why there are always more kids in the river.)

The reality is that if you don’t start solving problems upstream, you might get it all done, but at what cost? Peace of mind? Wasted time? Maybe even losing a client? Some folks get so caught up in reacting that it damages their reputation: “They’re quick to help but it seems like that’s all they do, constantly solving problems but never preventing them.” Yikes!  

Why do we get stuck downstream?

In his book, Dan explains the three reasons leaders don’t move naturally into upstream problem-solving:

Problem blindness: If we don’t realize it’s a problem, we’re not going to solve it.

Pointing fingers: If we don’t take ownership over a problem, we can blame it on other people or other departments (and maybe even hope other people will fix it). If you have each party involved in a process take ownership and pretend they are solely responsible for the problems downstream, they will all identify various trouble spots.

We keep our heads down: If we just want to keep moving forward, we do so with tunnel vision. Instead of looking around to figure out why there’s an obstacle, we just endeavor to get past it as fast as we can.

I would add in a couple more:

Fatigue: Sometimes we know that the source of the problem is going to be difficult to solve and exhausting, so we put up with the smaller frustrations on an ongoing basis.

Politics: This ties in with Dan’s “keep our heads down” reason, but brings into it the notion that when others in the organization have an interest in the status quo, they don’t appreciate “trouble makers” or people pointing out problems. So sometimes, in the interests of our own career or our team’s success, we continue to be an excellent firefighter, squashing each problem as it occurs rather than risk pointing out the source.

Stop floundering downstream and look upstream

It’s hard when we’re in the midst of solving problems that are right in front of us and need our attention. But here are steps to help us shift perspective from dealing with the myriad small fires and figuring out how to prevent them at the source:

Don’t assume you know the solution: Dan gives many examples in his book of leaders in private and public sectors who were able to overcome big problems by moving to an upstream problem-solving mindset. But they don’t do it alone! Sometimes the frontline workers were the ones who were able to identify the source of the trouble. (Pro-tip: Here are the six characteristics of problem-solving leaders.)

Widen the focus: You may need to rally team members from across departments to effectively figure out how to prevent recurring issues. It’s possible that you’re blind to what’s actually causing the issues because it’s not happening within your area. Or, it could be that you’re so used to how things are that you can’t see the source or the solution – what you see are the symptoms of the problem – but someone with a slightly different vantage point can. Then you can get close to the problem and understand better how to fix it at the source. (Pro-tip: Working with a coach is a great way to see new perspectives and figure out new angles.)

Cultivate a culture where people can raise issues: Early in your career, did you ever see a solution to something but your boss didn’t want to hear it? It’s important that leaders encourage their team members to share feedback and bad news. Having early warning of an issue gives leaders time to fix the problem upstream before it’s really bad downstream. 

Fix problems instead of adapting to them: If something isn’t working, it’s human nature to adapt. The silly thing is that sometimes the problems that we keep stressing out over have simple solutions – but if we’re busy running from emergency to emergency those simple fixes might evade us. Instead of putting tape on the leaky pipe, call the plumber! For example, some companies spend a significant amount of money on staff to handle calls from clients. But what if there are a significant number of calls that could be preempted by providing answers so clients didn’t have to call for the same information over and over?

Stop rewarding busy work: Some folks aren’t motivated to find efficient solutions because “we’ve always done things this way” and they don’t feel it’s their place to look at solving problems upstream. It is just expected that everyone will do ten steps to get a result and then they may even brag about how busy they are because for some, busy still equates to importance.

What if you start encouraging people to share their ideas for streamlining and improving processes? It might be that to solve the source of the problem, leaders have to change systems and bureaucracy. 

Coach’s Questions:

When have you reacted to the same problem repeatedly? Can you think of where you are adapting instead of solving the problem? How can you shift from solving problems downstream to solving them upstream?